Mastering

1723 hours 17th  June 2011 – I sit here in my studio to take on the most difficult task of all.  To MASTER the Eleventh Hour Initiative’s debut album “Escapism”.  Mastering a piece of music basically means making sure it is ready for public consumption.  I am excited at the prospect… yet nervous too.  There are so many decisions to make.  Some are complicated, others are emotional.  I shall try and explain as I progress.  At the moment I am making some observations and notes in my little black book.  Perhaps I’ll share them later too!  I warn you that those of you who have no real interest in HOW music is created should look away now.  THIS POST WILL BORE YOU!  For those of you still here… read on.  There is very little written regarding mastering an album.  The recording and mixing always get the plaudits!

1808 – Frustrating already.  Bloody computers! Ha ha!  The modern studio!  I’m just working on Try and Get Some Sleep.  This is a fantastic little song and still well worthy of the “first track on the album” accolade!

Oh… here are those figures which I may discuss later.  These numbers are extremely important and actually tell a very interesting story!

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – DR 12, RMS -15.7

Chinese Democracy – DR 10, RMS -12.7

Weekend in the City – DR 5, RMS -7.7

At War with the Mystics – DR 4, RMS -7.3

Death Magnetic – DR 3, RMS – 4.2

Them Crooked Vultures – DR 5, RMS -6.4

The Wild Hunt – DR 8, RMS -11.6

Along Came a Spider – DR 6, RMS -8.8

***  I collated these figures myself by running the CDs through my computer using a special audio capture program. ***

DR stands for Dynamic Range – the range of difference between quiet and loud.  A higher DR means more range of volume.  Get it? The RMS is basically the average volume.  The lower the RMS value the louder the song.  Generally speaking, the louder a song is…. the less dynamics it has.  At its most blatant this becomes a barrage of noise.  Quite befitting for some styles of music, but this is the standard that everyone is adapting to.  The accepted norm.  The accepted way to get your songs heard.  But the sheer volume can be tiring on the ears and can ruin certain forms of music.  Anyway…

1820 – I think I’m pretty happy with Try and Get Some Sleep.  The song has a bounce in its step.  I had a lucky strike on the first go and hit my target with my first shot!  Fingers crossed everything will be as easy.  I have certainly done enough work to this point to make this final step as easy as possible.

1833 – hmmm.  Here we go with Pitfall…  gulps. 1843 – still gulping ha ha! I’m just running off a mix now.  We’ll see if I hit the spot first time?!?!  1854 – Missed… but I think I nailed it second time.  So… onto Escape Plan.  This song has the potential to be a pretty big song for the band so I’ve got to get it right!

1907 – So, making a start on Escape Plan.

1933 – Not a lot of progress.  This song is a studio breaker!  A lot of different (temperamental) reverbs going on.  This song is a computer destroyer!  Ha ha!

2008 – I think I’ve got Escape Plan right.  I will obviously need to listen to the finished album through and make any final tweaks… but for now I think I’ve got it kicking.

2018 – Tinkering with the Calm and the Storm now.  This one is a bit of a classic.  And an epic.  Need to get it right.  It’s all about that bit Beatles-esque ending!  🙂  Yep… puts a smile on my face when I get it right.  I’m on my third run through now.  It’s a delicate balancing act.  If I can get the overall feel of the album right then I may have just been the ‘producer’ on the best album of 2011.  😉  2024 – yep… I think that run through has got it!  This is one of the tricky ones in the set.  It has so many very quiet parts.  This is the one that might throw the feel of the album.  When I am wearing my “mastering” hat I have to make sure that the level of this particular song sits right in the context of the album.  This is the song that I may well have to fine tune in the cold light of day upon repeat listens to the album as a whole.

2040 – Working on Life Will Be the Death of Me at the moment.  This is such a great song.  Perhaps my favourite on the album.  It’s got everything I like in a song.  Just got to make sure it sits in the ‘frame’ of the album as beautifully as it does in my head.  I know I’m talking a mixture of poetic bollocks and technical jargon… but, hey… this is a site about music for people who are interested in music!  2043 – Just running through the song for the third time.  Tweaks here and there. I’m only really messing with the overall volume levels here.  The majority of the work was in the mix. And I’ve lived with the mixes long enough to know that they’re right.  This has been the advantage of building the album up song by song over a year.  It has enabled me and Bill to really get to know the album.  In detail.  Now I’m just rounding it off.

2209 – Having a (careful) Jack Daniels and listening to the 5 songs so far.  Sounding good.  I shall call it a day for the moment!

2241 – Typed a message to Bill.  Hey… I haven’t had anything to eat since this morning!  Hmmm… cheese on toast beckons!  Night people.

1600 hours 18th June 2011 – Here I go again.  Just having a listen with fresh ears to the work I did last night.  I can immediately hear that I need to tweak a couple of things in Pitfall.  I also need to bring the volume of Escape Plan down slightly.  Although ‘theoretically’ it’s right (at about -11.6 RMS)… my ears tell me it’s slightly off.  At the end of the day I have to trust my (partially deaf) ears. They got me to where I am today!

Although I noted last night that I thought I’d have to increase the punch of Calm a little… today it sounds just fine.  So I think I’ll leave it be.  Hmmmm.  I seem to have a fair bit of work to do before I can even begin on the next section of the album.  😦  I do a downturned face… but really, this is quite exciting.  The last part of a process which has taken a year already!  So I’ve got to get it right!  Yes… the Calm and the Storm sounds fantastic.  It gives a smack in the mouth while quietly caressing you at the same time!  Ha ha!

1643 Noted that Life will be the Death of Me has a few noises in the chorus which I need to check out.  Were they intentional sounds? Just gotta check that out.  My notebook is full of workings, notes and figures!  Ha ha!  Like a scientist or something!

1707 – so  I’ve made a couple of adjustments to Pitfall.  They may not be enough… but I’ll allow them to settle and see how they sit within the context of the album later.

1720 – a little tweak needed to Escape Plan and it’s STILL crashing my whole studio.  I don’t know what it is about this song?!?  I know it’s a classic, but does it have to be so temperamental??? 🙂

1736 – Hmmm. The ‘noise’ in Life will be the Death was a little glitchy beat.  There on purpose to screw with your ears.  Therefore I have left it alone.  I should have had more faith in myself!  Ha ha! 1737 – Now I can move on to the next set of songs!

1753 – Ready Set… Explode! sounds superb.  Great little song.  Explosive ending!  Haha!

1757 – Here we go with Mean Machines.  I anticipate this being one of the trickiest songs to get right.  It is such a heavy, loud dance orientated song.  It is naturally loud.  It has natural power.  I have to tame it gently!!!

1927 – I’ve reached Chasing Chaos now.  Another explosive song. I think I’m nailing everything so far.  I will still have to have another listen to everything I’ve done later and make sure I’m on track.  Any changes I make during this session will be part of the album FOR EVER!  See… it’s important stuff.  I’m on my 7th coffee!  I feel quite alone here.  Trapped in the studio.  Am I a scientist or a prisoner?  1937 – Never have I been so precise.  I suppose the eyes (or rather ears) of the world will be on this album more than anything I’ve done previously.  Therefore it probably warrants the time and effort!  In fact I feel this album is the culmination of 20 years work. The pinnacle of my musical effort. The music on this album is, if I say so myself, pretty superb.  Listening to it through in this much detail really highlights the intelligence and the catchiness of these songs.  They are more than a collection – this is an album in the true sense of the word.

2120 – PULLING MY HAIR OUT!!!  See, now I remember something which I had forgotten!  Where We Go Next crashed my studio.  I remember I managed to get one version off the computer before it died.  That was last year.  And that is the version that has been streamable ever since.  But now I want to produce a new version for the Download/CD whatever.  … (for the album would be more accurate).  This new version needs to fit in with the feel of the other songs.  But I can’t access the song because it is corrupted!  Arrrrgggghhh!!!  So.. I’ve spent the last couple of hours rebuilding the song.  I’ve even re-recorded the drums.  Hmmm.  I’m pretty pissed off right now.  I can only hope that I manage to produce a better version than before.  That is usually what happens when these things are sent to test me! 2131 – I’m trying my best.  If I get this right I think I’ve managed to not only salvage the situation… but I may just have produced a better version than the original!  Woohooo!

2138 – I think I’ve done it.  I will need to listen to it again in the morning….  But I think I’ve nailed the song.  If anything the song now breathes more and yet still packs a gutteral punch towards the end.  Cool.

2152 – I think I’ll call it a day for now.  I’ve had a skim listen and I can still hear a few things that ain’t right.  But on the whole I think I’m nearing a perfect album.

0958 hours 19th June 2011 – Okay… I sit here with a coffee.  Ready to run through what I have so far and take MORE notes! Haha!

1017 – As first run throughs go it wasn’t bad.  But I have to change the levels of most of the songs.  It’s just that new day, morning, fresh ear thing.  Anyone who produces music to any extent will know what I mean!

1130 – Another listen through the album-so-far commencing.  Hmmm… A flick through the songs suggests that I need to put the levels of Pitfall and Mean Machines up even more.  But other than that I think I’m nearing the finishing line!  (Thank God!).

1440 – Yep… Still tweaking this set of songs.  (I’ve painted a wall too – just to give myself a break! Ha ha!).  Can’t wait to move onto the final batch.  Until then though – I’m still trying to get a trio of songs correct.  Pitfall, Mean Machines and Thousand Steps.  If I can get these right then I’ve cracked it!

1515 – Just completed those tweaks.  Just checking some other albums to see what they have by way of dynamic range.  I’ll add them to the list at the start rather than here.  Them Crooked Vultures packs a punch at -6.4 RMS!  Just running Tallest Man on Earth through now.  A very “home recording” sounding album… I expect a lot from it!  Hmmm… -11.6 RMS.  As I expected really.  A Dynamic Range of 8.  I can understand how most rock bands want to have a crushing, in your face sound… and Them Crooked Vultures certainly achieve that. The thing with the Eleventh Hour Initiative album is that there is a lot of darkness and light.  It needs to be treated a little more gently. It’s not about numbers… it’s about ears.  But still… it will be interesting to see if I can pull off a Dynamic Range figure of around 8.  This is pretty much the magic number.  The balance between sounding bouncy and interesting, but still having enough sheer volume to attract the crunch crowd!  Ha ha!

1627 – Just running off a version of Twelve. The twelfth track on the album.  And it’s called Twelve. (see what we did there!). 😉 I need to listen to the last couple of songs in the context of the album.  But I now have a complete set of songs to evaluate.

2045 – HUUUGEEE Chinese for Father’s Day!  Completely bloated. Now back here I sit.  In my cell.  Three more ‘tweaks’ to do before I can have a “headphone listen-through”.

2319 – It has been a LONG few days.  I’m still in my cell.  But I’m listening through the entire album on my high quality headphones and it sounds amazing.  I think I’ve finished.  I SAID I THINK I’VE FINISHED!!!!  Bloody hell.  That was an ordeal.  I’m not saying that the final outcome isn’t fantastic… but that was a long slog. And it’s probably not over yet.  But at least I now have a set of songs to burn to a CD and subject to a week or so in the car.  That is the final test!  Ha ha!

So, how does Escapism compare to those albums I measured myself against along the way.  Well… it weighs in with a Dynamic Range of 9 and an RMS of -11.4 which is not bad at all.  In fact, I was aiming to hit a DR of roughly 8… so I am well chuffed.

Chinese Democracy – DR 10, RMS -12.7

Escapism – DR 9, RMS -11.4

The Wild Hunt – DR 8, RMS -11.6

It slots in between Chinese Democracy and The Wild Hunt in the scheme of things.  And this is bloody marvellous.  An album that cost $10,000,000 and an album that I rate as the best of recent years.  The DR number is the magical number.  I seem to have managed to get more Dynamic Range than the Tallest Man on Earth whilst at the same time being (marginally) louder.  That is not bad at all.  In fact I’d go so far as to say I have done well.  You done good pig.  🙂

This is of course all a load of bollocks if you have no interest in studio related music production.  But for those of you have stuck with me through the 25 cups of coffee you’ll understand that music is a game.  A game where the loudest music wins.  It has been this way for the last 20 years. You see, when the CD was first invented it opened people’s eyes/ears to the possibilities of increased dynamics in recorded music.  Dynamics meaning the extent of the difference between a quiet sound and a loud sound.  Now… to cut to the chase (a book could be written about this!) over the years it was realised that the general public seem to flock towards loud music. Therefore artists would make sure their music was the loudest – so it would win the loudness war on the radio.  Bear in mind that this battle has been raging since the beginning of musical time with similar wars being played out over vinyl jukeboxes.  But the CD changed the terms of engagement.  And producers realised that you could make a CD VERY loud!  So over the course of the 1990s CDs became louder and louder.  The upside to the loudness is obvious.  Volume pricks the consumer’s ears and therefore leads to increased record sales.  The downside is that the dynamic range which I have been bleating on about is squeezed.  It is reduced.  The difference between the lows and the highs becomes non-existent.  Everything is just LOUD!!!

With music the excitement is often from the quiet LOUD quiet LOUD aspect.  Think Nirvana, Pixies, Jeff Buckley you name it.  When you squeeze every drop of ‘loudness’ from a CD you lose this thrill.  It can become a chore to listen to.  And yet everyone does of course want their music to be loud.  In a way you can’t win.  It’s about compromise.

The mp3 digital download hasn’t changed anything.  I chose to put streamable versions of the Eleventh Hour songs on the internet over the course of the year.  This was primarily to enable Bill and I to get a feel for what songs worked, and ideas for a track listing.  I chose to join the loudness war to a certain extent.  There are far better purveyors of the battle out there though.  You only have to listen to Soundcloud to hear songs that are amazingly LOUD.  To the point where I don’t quite know how they did it. (well, that’s not entirely true.  It is far easier to make electronic music frighteningly loud and most of Soundcloud is electronic).  But I didn’t want our songs to be unfairly dismissed so I made sure they were able to at least stick their heads above the parapet.

I like the story about the mastering of Chinese Democracy.  Now, bear with me, you don’t have to like Chinese Democracy to read this story.  Axl Rose worked on his Guns N’ Roses album, “Chinese Democracy”, for a decade.  He spent a ton of money on it.  Went through musicians and producers like a knife through chocolate mousse. So when it came time to mastering the album you can imagine that he was probably pretty intense about it!  Ha ha! Mastering an album means getting the levels right and giving the songs the syrup that glues them together into an ‘album’ rather than a ‘collection of songs’.  So Axl must have been excited but scared too.

The producer gave Axl three versions of the final album to choose from.  A squashed, loud, commercial version, a middle ground version, and an album with the dynamics intact.  Now… bearing in mind the pressure Axl would have been under to recoup the money invested in the album you could be forgiven for thinking he went for the obvious choice.  The producer certainly thought he would.  He gave the three albums to Axl and told him that the dynamic album was his own personal choice.  Ha was surprised when Axl picked the dynamic version over the LOUD version.  This decision went against all “common sense” of the time.  It was brave.  And I think that even if you don’t like him or his music it does at least paint one aspect of his character in a positive light!

Okay… I have rambled here.  And this will probably be the longest post I ever write.  But I am describing choices.  Choices musicians have to make.  I am part of the loudness war as is every musician on the planet and I have learned from it.  I have picked up on certain production techniques.  Certain processes which are often used to make a track louder can also be used in an artistic manner.  These flourishes can be heard all over Escapism.  But Escapism is no longer a LOUD album. It is still a loud album.  But it is not a LOUD album. Do you get my drift?  I want this album to kick like Pump by Aerosmith, or Back in Black by AC/DC.  It is my choice.  I want the music to bounce.  And as I sit here listening to it, it certainly does bounce.  It all sounds bloody brilliant.  But it is still a loud album.  This is alternative rock not jazz.  An RMS of -14 (which is considered by audiophiles to be a good ball park figure) would not be right for this album at this time.  You have seen the numbers which I set out at the beginning.  Those albums were picked pretty much at random (they happened to be next to the computer… well… okay … I may have run downstairs to fetch Death Magnetic!) and yet they are the kind of albums that Escapism will have to stand along side.  And as I listen I can hear that this album will stand proud.

I think I shall stop typing now.  It is late and I have rambled.  But I’ve been able to set my thoughts out along the way.  I’ve documented the journey.  That was what I created this site for in the first place.  I thank you.  Good night!

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